Eating a healthy diet is like drinking from the fountain of youth: it makes you feel healthy, happy, and vital.
Some people take this to an obsessive extreme, though, and become possessed by the quest to find the world’s healthiest diet.
Unfortunately, if you’re looking for the healthiest diet in the world among the most popular mainstream diet trends, you’re probably wasting your time.
That’s because too many focus on restricting or excluding certain food groups instead of encouraging you to eat others. It’s all “don’t eat this,” and very little “do eat this, and some of this in moderation.”
While this strategy can offer some benefits—especially if the foods you’re supposed to cut back on are a chief source of excess calories in your diet—many times these restrictions are based on bad science, faulty logic, and marketing babble.
The truth is that the healthiest diet on the planet is relatively simple. There are just a handful of guidelines you have to follow, and if you get these right, everything usually falls into place.
What Is a Healthy Diet?
A healthy diet is any diet that helps you improve or maintain your overall health.
Since “healthy” is a subjective term, ideas of what constitutes a healthy diet differ from person to person. That said, most would agree that a healthy diet should include . . .
For most people, this means eating a diet that’s rich in nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish, dairy, pulses, nuts, seeds, legumes, and plant oils, and low in processed foods, trans-fats, and high-sugar drinks.
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Is a Vegan Diet Healthy?
A vegan diet contains only foods that come from plants, and no foods that come from animals, including dairy products and eggs.
A large body of evidence shows that people who eat higher amounts of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are generally healthier and more likely to live longer, disease-free lives than those who don’t eat enough of them.
That’s largely because fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytonutrients, and flavonoids that benefit health in various ways.
While healthy eating necessarily includes a wide variety of plants and vegetables, that doesn’t mean eating only those foods is ideal, and especially if you’re trying to improve or optimize your body composition and health.
For instance, gaining muscle is trickier as a vegan because it’s difficult to eat enough high-quality, well-absorbed protein. This partly explains why studies show omnivores tend to have more muscle than people who follow plant-based diets.
Studies also show that certain micronutrient deficiencies are more common among vegans than omnivores, including vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, calcium, and others.
You can mitigate this problem and consume a truly healthy vegan diet by consuming a variety of different micronutrient-dense foods, but you’ll probably also need to supplement strategically to avoid a deficiency
Is a Vegetarian Diet Healthy?
A vegetarian diet involves abstaining from eating any products or byproducts of animal slaughter, including meat, poultry, fish, gelatin, animal fats, and animal stock.
Many vegetarians, however, continue to eat animal foods that aren’t the products or byproducts of animal slaughter, such as milk, honey, eggs, cheese, and yogurt.
When it comes to health benefits, the vegetarian diet is much like the vegan diet.
Because of the high fruit and vegetable content, a vegetarian diet is rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other essential nutrients.
However, because of the lack of animal-based products in the vegetarian diet, vegetarians may find it challenging to consume enough high-quality, well-absorbed protein, and are more likely to have micronutrient deficiencies than omnivores.
That said, because most vegetarians include some animal products in their diet, these downsides can be avoided by consuming lots of eggs and dairy and supplementing intelligently.
Is a Carnivore Diet Healthy?
People who don’t eat plant foods as part of their diet—that’s no fruits, vegetables, garnishes, or plant-based spices, oils, or seasonings—are said to follow a “carnivore diet.”
It is possible to get all essential nutrients from eating a variety of animal products, and thus you can survive on an entirely animal-based diet.
Surviving, however, is not the same as thriving, and unless you’re willing to eat all parts of an animal, snout to tail, you won’t get all of the vitamins and minerals you need to optimize your health.
For example, only organ meats, like liver, heart, and kidney, contain vitamin C (albeit in trace amounts).
Thus, if you follow a carnivore diet and aren’t willing to expand your palate to offal, you may eventually develop a vitamin C deficiency. In time, this can lead to a host of health issues, including compromised immunity, poor mood, weight gain, and anemia.
Even if you don’t develop a full-blown deficiency (a severe lack of nutrients that impairs health), you could still develop an insufficiency (a modest lack of nutrients that undermines health in less obvious ways).
What’s more, animal products don’t contain fiber. Although fiber is not essential for life, multiple studies show that eating more fiber helps reduce the risk of numerous illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and diverticulitis.
The same can be said for phytonutrients and flavonoids. While neither is essential for our survival, there are mountains of evidence showing that your life is probably going to be shorter and more painful if you eliminate them from your diet.
Thus, while you can survive only eating meat, it’s probably not ideal for health.
What Is the Healthiest Diet in the World?
Most methods of dieting that claim to optimize health focus on restriction.
For example, with veganism or vegetarianism, you must restrict all or many animal products, or in the case of the carnivore diet, you must restrict all plant foods.
Ironically, the best way to ensure you get enough premium protein and key nutrients to be as healthy and vital as possible is to focus on inclusion.
Specifically, you want to include a variety of nutritious foods in your diet, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish, dairy, pulses, nuts, seeds, legumes, and plant oils.
In other words, the healthiest diet in the world should focus on the foods you’re supposed to eat in large amounts, rather than nitpick about all of the foods you aren’t allowed to eat.
The only thing you should limit is foods that are demonstrably bad for your health, such as processed foods, trans-fats, and high-sugar drinks. Even then, though, it’s debatable if consuming these in small amounts has any long-term negative consequences on your health.
Thus, it’s better to think of limiting them, rather than prohibiting them altogether.
Allowing yourself a store-bought pastry or a can of your favorite soda from time to time won’t banjax your diet—only overindulging in them too often will.
What’s more, treating yourself with some less-than-healthy fare every once in a while can act as a valuable reward for eating well most of the time, and make it easier to stay the course over the long term.
Some people call this style of eating the “flexitarian diet,” but I just call it “eating like an adult,” and it will look slightly different for everyone.
That is, there are no hard and fast rules about how much of each food or food group to eat or not eat. You get the majority of your calories from whole, nutritious, relatively unprocessed foods that you like, and minimize foods that we know cause disease and dysfunction down the line.
And so long as you don’t over consume any of these foods (you can still gain weight eating “healthy” food if you consistently consume more calories than you burn), you’d be hard pressed to find a diet that contributes more to your overall health and vitality without any need for supplementation.
10 Steps to Eating a Healthy Diet
When it comes to eating a healthy diet, there are no strict rules about how much of each food or food group to eat or not eat.
That said, here are some good rules of thumb to follow:
- Get most of your calories from whole, nutritious, unprocessed foods: This means primarily eating foods that come from animals or the earth that you prepare yourself.
- Eat an appropriate number of calories to maintain a healthy body weight: If you’re overweight, eat less. If you’re underweight, eat more. If you’re happy with your weight, eat the same amount as you burn.
- Eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables per day: Research shows this is enough to lower your risk of all-cause mortality significantly.
- Eat a moderate amount of animal products: Seafood, pork, poultry, eggs, and red meat are all good options. Try to minimize your intake of highly processed meat-products like salami, sausage, and bacon.
- Eat protein with every meal or snack: This helps you eat enough total protein each day, which is important for optimizing your body composition, recovering from your workouts, and feeling satiated by your meals (and thus less likely to overeat).
- Find a balance of carbohydrate and fat intake that works for you: If you’re very active, you’ll probably prefer to eat more carbs, but don’t agonize over this.
- Eat at least a few servings of dairy per week: Skyr, yogurt, cottage cheese, regular cheese, and milk are all nutritious, high-protein options.
- Drink water when you’re thirsty: Many people say you should drink at least half a gallon of water a day, but research shows this probably isn’t necessary. Instead, drink enough water to quench your thirst and you should be fine.
- Limit your alcohol intake: Don’t have more than one or two drinks per day, and try to prioritize low-calorie wines, beers, and spirits over high-calorie heavy beers, ciders, and fruity cocktails.
- Enjoy junk food in moderation: Allow yourself a treat as often as you like, but try not to get more than 20% of your daily calories from sweets (with less being better).
FAQ #1: What is the healthiest diet for humans?
The healthiest diet for humans includes . . .
- The right number of calories and enough protein, carbohydrates, and fat to maintain a healthy body composition
- Enough vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients that your body can function well without the need for supplementation
- Enough water to stay hydrated
For most people, this means eating a diet that’s rich in nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish, dairy, pulses, nuts, seeds, legumes, and plant oils, and low in processed foods, trans-fats, and high-sugar drinks.
FAQ #2: What is the healthiest diet to lose weight?
The healthiest weight-loss diet for most people is known as flexible dieting, and it’s based on the following principles:
- How much you eat is more important than what.
- You should tailor your daily food choices to your preferences, goals, and lifestyle.
- Forgive dietary lapses and “keep calm and carry on.”
- Long-term compliance is the key to sustainable improvements.
To learn how to make flexible dieting work for you, read this article:
How to Get the Body You Want With Flexible Dieting
FAQ #3: What country has the healthiest diet?
Since good health and long life expectancy are strongly correlated, most people looking for what country has the healthiest diet look first for what country has the longest life expectancy.
The problem with this logic is that there’s far more to long life expectancy than a healthy diet, including minimizing stress, taking regular exercise, finding purpose, and having strong family bonds.
That said, diet plays a substantial role in longevity, and if we look at the diets of countries that regularly top the charts for life expectancy, such as Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Spain, and Italy, a few trends emerge.
Most eat diets that include . . .
- A lot of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains
- A substantial amount of fish
- Some poultry, eggs, and dairy
- Moderate amounts of tea, coffee, and alcohol such as wine
- A limited amount of red meat
- Almost no processed meat, sugary drinks, refined grains, or trans fat
Notice that there wasn’t any single food that was common to all of these groups, which underlines the fact that there is no exact formula for the healthiest diet in the world. Instead, the winning formula for a healthy diet is more like a set of principles than a list of specific foods.
FAQ #4: Is vegan the healthiest diet?
While including plenty of plants and vegetables in your diet is essential for health, only eating those foods isn’t ideal, and especially if you’re trying to improve your body composition and health.
That’s because it’s impossible to get all of the micronutrients you need from plants alone, and it’s difficult to eat enough high-quality, well-absorbed protein when you don’t include some animal foods in your diet, too.
A healthier option is to follow a varied diet that’s rich in nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish, dairy, pulses, nuts, seeds, legumes, and plant oil, and low in processed foods, trans-fats, and high-sugar drinks.
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